Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Nolan, Francis George (1894–1977)

by Tim Moroney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Francis George Nolan (1894-1977), trade-union official and railway clerk, was born on 7 August 1894 at Bridstoon's Dam, Wellshot station, near Longreach, Queensland, third child of Henry Nolan, a Queensland-born carrier, and his wife Delia, née Connell, who came from Ireland. The family moved to Rockhampton where Frank attended school. Although his parents had little money, he enjoyed a happy childhood, playing cricket and football, and swimming in the waterholes on the outskirts of the city. 'At the age of 13 years 7 months' he passed an examination for the post of apprentice clerk, and on 22 November 1909 was appointed to the traffic branch of the Queensland Railway Department. His first job, at Mount Chalmers, involved a daily return trip because he could not afford to live away from home on his meagre wages. On 5 December 1910 he accepted employment in the railway goods office at Rockhampton.

After attending meetings of the Railway Clerks' Association, Nolan joined the 'all-grades' Queensland Railway Union in November 1914. In 1920 the Q.R.U. amalgamated with similar bodies in other States to form the Australian Railways Union. A militant organization with syndicalist elements in its ideology, the A.R.U. preferred direct action to the institutionalized system of arbitration advocated by the Australian Labor Party. In the ensuing years the A.R.U. often came into conflict with Queensland Labor governments.

Nolan's career as a union official had begun in the Rockhampton sub-branch of the Q.R.U. In 1917 he was elected its vice-chairman and became a correspondent for the union's journal, the Militant (from 1921, as the organ of the A.R.U.'s Queensland branch, it was named the Advocate). Nolan spent a short period at Mount Morgan before being transferred back to Rockhampton. He took part in the 1925 railway strike in which the A.R.U. won a resounding victory, forcing W. N. Gillies' State Labor government to support an increase of five shillings in the weekly basic wage, the amount by which it had been reduced in 1922 at the request of E. G. Theodore's government. The A.L.P. struck back by excluding A.R.U. delegates—among them Tim Moroney and George Rymer—from the 1926 Labor-in-Politics Convention. This action precipitated the A.R.U.'s disaffiliation from the A.L.P.

Later that year Nolan was a delegate to the A.R.U.'s conference at Townsville which condemned the A.L.P. He played an active role in the 1927 railway lockout in which the Labor premier William McCormack sacked the entire Queensland railway staff and forced the A.R.U. to capitulate on the government's terms. In 1929 Nolan unsuccessfully contested Labor pre-selection for the Legislative Assembly seat of Rockhampton against the incumbent G. P. Farrell. He attended the 1930 Red International of Labour Unions conference in Moscow and made an extensive tour of the Soviet Union.

Transferred to Brisbane in 1935, Nolan soon rose through the union's ranks to become State treasurer in 1939. During World War II he served as the employees' representative on the Clerical Classification Board. When Moroney died, Nolan was elected State secretary of the A.R.U. in January 1945. He was immediately embroiled in the union movement's agitation for improvements in wages and conditions. The A.R.U. supported the meatworkers' strike in 1946, then joined other unions in a bitter struggle with Premier E. M. Hanlon's Labor government over increases in wage margins for skilled workers. In December 1947 Nolan was fined for disobeying an order of the State Industrial Court. The conflict with the government culminated in the railway strike, which began in February 1948. Acting under the government's emergency powers, police resorted to violence in breaking up a railwaymen's march on St Patrick's Day. The government and the A.R.U. reached a compromise settlement after nine weeks.

Prompted by the split in the A.L.P. in 1957, Nolan led the A.R.U. back into the official Labor fold. He later served as a delegate to the party's State central executive and to its federal conferences. Although he continued the A.R.U.'s aggressive style of unionism, he was able, as chairman of the Combined Railway Unions, to muster considerable support from affiliates. In the 1950s and 1960s the Queensland railways underwent substantial change, with redundancies resulting from competition from road transport, the introduction of diesel locomotives, increased use of long trains to transport minerals, and the advent of new technologies. As an executive-member (vice-president 1957-69) of the Trades and Labor Council of Queensland, Nolan helped to organize several mass stop-work meetings in the 1960s over claims for increased wages.

In 1958 Nolan addressed the 42nd session of the International Labour Conference at Geneva. Of average height and solid build, he was self-educated and an avid reader. He never married, and in the latter part of his life lived at Bulimba with his sister and her children. Following his retirement in December 1969, he wrote and published his memoirs, You Pass This Way Only Once (edited by Denis Murphy, Brisbane, 1974). He died on 8 October 1977 in Princess Alexandra Hospital, South Brisbane, and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1980)
  • D. J. Murphy, The Big Strikes (Brisb, 1983)
  • D. Blackmur, Strikes (Syd, 1993)
  • Militant (Brisbane), 11 Oct 1920
  • Advocate (Brisbane), 15 Jan 1945
  • Brisbane Catholic Historical Society Proceedings, 2, 1990, p 52
  • private information.

Citation details

Tim Moroney, 'Nolan, Francis George (1894–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nolan-francis-george-11250/text20067, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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